The Edelweiss Pirates (Edelweißpiraten) were a loose group of youths in Nazi Germany. They emerged in western Germany out of the German Youth Movement of the late 1930s in response to the strict regimentation of the Hitler Youth. Similar in many ways to the Leipzig Meuten, they consisted of young people, mainly between the ages of 14 and 17, who had evaded the Hitler Youth by leaving school (which was allowed at 14) and were also young enough to avoid military conscription, which was only compulsory from the age of 17 onwards.
The origins of the Edelweißpiraten can be traced to the period immediately prior to World War II, as the state-controlled Hitler Youth was mobilized to serve the state, at the expense of the leisure activities previously offered to young people. This tension was exacerbated once the war began and youth leaders were conscripted. In contrast, the Edelweißpiraten offered young people considerable freedom to express themselves and to mingle with members of the opposite sex, whereas Naziyouth movements were strictly segregated by gender, the Hitler-Jugend for boys and the Bund Deutscher Mädel for girls. Though predominantly male, the casual meetings of the Edelweißpiraten even offered German adolescents an opportunity for sexual experimentation with the opposite sex. The Edelweißpiraten used many symbols of the outlawed German Youth Movement, including their tent (the Kohte), their style of clothing (the Jungschaftsjacke), and their songs.
The first Edelweißpiraten appeared in the late 1930s in western Germany, comprising mostly young people between 14 and 18. Individual groups were closely associated with different regions but identifiable by a common style of dress with their ownedelweiss badge and by their opposition to what they saw as the paramilitary nature of the Hitler Youth. Subgroups of the Edelweißpiraten included the Navajos, centred on Cologne, the Kittelbach Pirates of Oberhausen and Düsseldorf, and theRoving Dudes of Essen. According to one Nazi official in 1941, “Every child knows who the Kittelbach Pirates are. They are everywhere; there are more of them than there are Hitler Youth… They beat up the patrols… They never take no for an answer.”
Although they rejected the Nazis’ authoritarianism, the Edelweißpiraten’s nonconformist behaviour tended to be restricted to petty provocations. Despite this, they represented a group of youth who rebelled against the government’s regimentation of leisure and were unimpressed by the propaganda touting Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”).
During the war, many Edelweißpiraten supported the Allies and assisted deserters from the German army. Some groups also collected propaganda leaflets dropped by Allied aircraft and pushed them through letterboxes.
Apart from gatherings on street corners, the Edelweißpiraten engaged in hiking and camping trips, defying the restrictions on free movement, which kept them away from the prying eyes of the totalitarian regime. They were highly antagonistic to the Hitler Youth, ambushing their patrols and taking great pride in beating them up. One of their slogans was “Eternal War on the Hitler Youth”. As one subgroup, the Navajos, sang:
Hitler’s dictates make us small,
we’re yet bound in chains.
But one day we’ll again walk tall,
no chain can us restrain.
For hard are our fists,
Yes! And knives at our wrists,
for youth to be free,
Navajos lay siege.
The Nazi response to the Edelweißpiraten was typically harsh. Individuals identified by the Gestapo as belonging to the various gangs were often rounded up and released with their heads shaved to shame them. In some cases, young people were sent to concentration camps or prison. On October 25, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered a crackdown on the group and in November of that year, a group of thirteen people, the heads of the Ehrenfelder Gruppe, were publicly hanged in Cologne. Some of these were former Edelweißpiraten. The Edelweißpiraten hanged were six teenagers, amongst them Bartholomäus Schink, called Barthel, former member of the local Navajos. Fritz Theilen survived.
Nevertheless, government repression never managed to break the spirit of most groups, which constituted a subculture that rejected the norms of Nazi society. While the Edelweißpiraten assisted army deserters and others hiding from the Third Reich, they have yet to receive recognition as a resistance movement (partly because they were viewed with contempt by many of their former Youth Movement comrades, because of their ‘proletarian’ background and ‘criminal’ activities) and the families of members killed by the Nazis have as yet received no reparations.